Friday, September 21, 2012

Turning Student Expectations Around

I have not been terribly disappointed in student expectations.  Most of the students I have helped have come to the session prepared to work, and they are generally compliant with requests and amenable to my suggestions.
I had one student this week, however, who really struggled with focusing.  I was trying to impress upon him the importance of fixing certain structural weaknesses in his paper, and he kept introducing tangential information, personal stories, irrelevant personal opinion, and the like.  We were working on an outline, and he repeatedly turned the sheet over (we were writing the outline on the back of the last page of his paper) to point out how segments of his paper related to his personal life and his feelings about politics.  This made it difficult for me to conclude the session in a timely manner or to help him understand how important it was for him to organize his paper.  After taking far more time than was appropriate or useful, I finally turned the sheet over, quickly summarized the essential elements that his paper needed, and let him know he had work to do (I did so cordially and encouragingly, of course).
In meeting with this student, I got the feeling that he had come to me for a conversation more than for assistance with his paper.  It seemed he had many unresolved feelings about recent events in his life and he was using me as an opportunity to express them.  I imagine that he treats many people this way, including his professors.
This highlighted something that I’ve come to believe about student expectations over the last couple of weeks: They want us to be, in a word, their therapists.  Not that they want to express their feelings to us in most or even many circumstances.  But so many times asking what a student needs help with and getting that oh-so-common response—“Grammar”—has led me to realize that we are, like a therapist, a filler of gaps.  A student comes in with little idea of what they really need, and it is our job to diagnose and devise treatment for their particular problem.  We are expected to find the gaps in a student’s understanding or performance and fill them.
Naturally, we want more than anything to help students help themselves.  We can help them identify the gaps, but we want them to do most of the filling.  When a student tells me that they need help with their “Grammar,” that is my cue to start looking for gaps.  To find the gaps, I need to know the layout of the land, so to speak.  That is, I need to know what they are expected by their professor to do, and what the student has actually done.  Once I have determined that the student has failed to satisfy the teacher’s demands, I can point to specific gaps that they have failed to fill on their own.  My job, at that point, is to show them how a shovel is used, and to put them to work.
Another way to put this, which I prefer, is that our responsibility is to make students expect of themselves what they expect of us, and to help them find the tools to meet those expectations.
Supposing a student is unwilling to work with me on the gaps I have helped him to find, my options at that point are limited.  The best thing I can suggest in such cases is to move on to the next gap.  If all of the gaps have been exhausted, it is probably time to conclude the session cordially and move on to students with fewer personal barriers.


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